I became an atheist through the back door, as explained elsewhere. It wasn’t until after I had been godless for several years that I began to discover the usual arguments that, for most non-believers, led to atheism. It was only as Christians tried to bring me back to God, ironically, that I began to see how ridiculous Christianity and the other revealed religions were, & how bizarre the jump from believing in God to believing in this or that particular revelation.
So Silent He is Not There
After reading Francis Schaefer’s He is There and He is Not Silent, I realized for the first time how silent God actually was. Sure, it was claimed that God had been loud thousands of years ago, that even today God spoke privately to the hearts and minds of individuals, but — and this is the kicker — publicly God is silent. Imagine, I realized, if Congress passed laws but never published them, instead only letting certain “blessed” individuals know, in private, what laws they had passed. In such a case, how could anyone be certain what the laws were, or whose claims to know the laws were legitimate? Yet that is the situation with God’s laws.
That is the great flaw of revealed religion. It is always a matter of a few individuals claiming to be “blessed” with knowledge of God’s laws and intentions. The rest of us always receive the revelations of revealed religions from other humans, not from God direct. In fact, anyone can claim that God spoke to them and therefore that they speak for God, but there is no way to confirm or deny those claims. Unless God speaks directly and universally to all of us, speaks publicly, we have no reliable way of knowing his intentions — other than by studying the nature of the world itself.
Revealed religion is credible only when the revealing comes direct from God in a publicly confirmable way, not when it comes from humans claiming divine sanction. Moreover, if our revelations came direct from God there would be little debate about their content — whereas in fact what we see in the world is hundreds of religions with thousands of discrepancies, an indication of human not divine origins.
If God is not speaking directly and publicly, then natural religion is all we can have. In fact, revealed religion is worse than useless: if there is a God then human revelation is in fact dangerous to those who believe in it. Since it doesn’t come from God it is likely to be false — and for all we know displeasing to God.
The Problem with Prayer
Another thing I didn’t notice until well after becoming an atheist is the horrendous problem with prayer. To put it bluntly, prayer cannot be reconciled with God’s existence. Prayer exists to inform God of a problem or need and, if the prayer is successful, to talk him into doing something he was otherwise not going to do. It is difficult to view prayer in a way that is not insulting to God, for prayer is necessarily meant to be intercessionary. If prayer is not intended either to inform God or change God’s mind, then it has no purpose which is not achievable simply by hoping. But if prayer is nothing but hoping, then we should call it hoping, not prayer. And its content would consist of telling about our hopes. It would contain no requests addressed to God.
Santa Claus for Grownups
Another thing I didn’t recognize until years after becoming an atheist is the similarity between God and Santa Claus. Like the Easter bunny, Santa Claus serves the purpose of fostering in children a desire for supernatural agency, a magical being who can drop from the sky to provide for your needs & wants. Like the desire to secretly discover you are a prince or princess, or the wish for a fairy godmother to someday make you important, Santa Claus prepares the way for God.
I used to wonder why adults fed such illusions to children only to pop them later as they became older. Wasn’t that a bad strategy? Didn’t it risk making children skeptical of adult claims about God. But in fact, it doesn’t make them skeptical, rather is softens them up for more complete and satisfying fantasies, such as spending eternity in paradise. In fact, popping the childish myths helps establish adults as reliable authorities on supernatural beings. Adults “prove” that they know which supernatural entities are real (God) and which are only childhood fantasies (Easter Bunny). God, Santa Claus for adults, is the one supernatural entity children see their parents take seriously. After all, we don’t go to church, synagogue or mosque week in and week out for the others.
It was only after I stopped drinking the Christian cool-aid that I discovered how tremendous the gap between the case for God and the case for Christianity actually was. It was clear to me that the case for God’s existence was flawed, but at least it was rational and understandable. Theists were wrong, but they were reasonable.
But concede — just for the sake of their argument — that God exists, and that reasonableness comes to an end. Christians, I discovered, can provide no good reason to jump from God’s existence to Christianity. Almost inevitably, they start quoting from the New Testament, as if an appeal to ancient authority is all that is required to prove that Christianity — of all the religions in the world — is the correct one. Unfortunately for them, they have little else. Natural theology (reasoning from God’s nature, and the nature of the world) simply can’t get you from God’s existence to the truth of Christianity or any other revealed religion.
CS Lewis tried to fudge the gap by arguing that Christianity was so off the wall, such an unlikely story, that it had to be true. Christianity was a manly religion too, said Lewis, because it asks for a blind leap of faith. Competitors? they weren’t off the wall enough to be believable, or weren’t manly enough, or in the case of pantheism could be ridiculed as “pan-everythingism”. Lewis, the most famous of Christian apologists, was incapable of coming up with anything but emotional arguments for the truth of Christianity.
The Faithlessness of Faith
And really, that’s about the best any Christian has done in bridging the gap between the reasonableness of belief in God and the unreasonableness of Christianity. Nor have any other revealed religions done better. Reason can get you to God (though atheists will disagree), but beyond that faith is all there is. That would be “manly” faith, of course, faith confident and brash and unquestioning, something like the way the brash unquestioning Nazis were manly, I suppose.
The problem with faith, of course, is that it proves too much. Faith “proves” Hinduism and Islam and Mithracism as convincingly as it proves Christianity. As a method for determining truth, faith is useless.
Some theologians have tried to obtain at least the Christian attributes of God from natural theology, though even that is a bit tortured. The problem is, you can’t get the Bible from natural theology, or from studying the world, or from thinking about God’s nature. Nor the Koran, of course. And therefore you can’t get the doctrines of revealed religion except by blind faith. But why blindness should favor Christianity or Islam over Mithracism no one can explain. All faith is darkness, and therefore for the person who actually believes in God, useless. Even harmful.
If atheism is true, faith can be benign. But if there is actually a God then faith — because of its blindness — is an incredibly risky business to engage in. For faith pretends — without any reasonable evidence — to know all kinds of specific things about God. What if God doesn’t agree with your blind assertions? Worse, what if she/he/it feels insulted by them?
That’s the rub. If there’s one thing the revealed religions are good at, it’s insulting God. The faithful insist on painting the Supreme Being a buffoon as ignorant of science as they are, easily manipulated by prayer. In their warped vision God becomes an evil ruler plotting to burn billions of sentient beings in everlasting hell.
Having thoroughly insulted the being they bow before, believers had better hope atheists are right. Had better hope God is a mere phantom in the emptiness of silence space.
Note: this post has been slightly edited since first posted